When wildlife photographer Kevin Ebi heard the bald eagle’s call, he knew exactly what was about to happen.
Ebi has spent years photographing wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, and he gained an extensive background on bald eagles while working on his book Year of the Eagle.
But it was foxes he was hoping to photograph when he was in Washington State’s San Juan Island National Historical Park last Saturday. At this time of year, young foxes can often be seen in the region.
As the day neared late afternoon, one such young fox scampered across an open field with a rabbit, recently captured, dangling from its jaws.
Dive-bombing from above, a young eagle suddenly swooped down, wrapped its talons around the rabbit, and lifted it into the air, fox still in tow.
“I thought the eagle would scare the fox into dropping its dinner,” says Ebi. Yet, for just a few seconds, the fox steadfastly held on before it was flung back onto the ground.
For a professional wildlife photographer like Ebi, he knew it was the sort of dramatic scene that few get the opportunity to capture. From the moment he heard the eagle screech overhead, he had his lens trained on the fox and his finger clamped down on his shutter button.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever see anything quite that dramatic again,” he adds.
Not only does his photo sequence capture a dramatic scene, but they also show an example of kleptoparasitism.
The term, also sometimes referenced to as piracy, isn’t unique to bald eagles—it’s seen in many animals, from mammals to mollusks—but bald eagles have made a name for themselves doing it. Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to his daughter that he wasn’t crazy about the choice of the bald eagle as a national symbol because of the bird’s reputation for stealing food from other animals. (He also noted that the turkey is “a much more respectable bird.”)
Dive bombing is a typical hunting tactic bald eagles employ. It’s effective on small foxes, and on other large birds. Eagles have been spotted swooping in to steal food from ospreys carrying salmon. They also steal from other eagles.
“They’re thinking about getting food while expending the fewest calories possible,” notes Ebi.
Immediately following the incident, Ebi went in search of the fox to see if it was injured. Surprisingly, he says he found it without visible marks and seemingly unfazed. It was as if nothing had happened, he recalled, and only a few frames remained of the pirate attack.
He notes: “It’s one split second of time that tells a story.”
This article was first published by National Geographic on 24 May 2018.